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The signals sent by signature dishes

19 March 2012

Signature dish. There's something old-school and stolidly Escoffier about that phrase, suggesting carpeted dining rooms and soaring toques, curly moustaches and copperplate menus. It carries a uniquely cheffy vanity.

They are vital to almost every restaurant, and customers tend to seek them out. It's only when you start to think about it that you realise to what degree the restaurant industry relies on the concept of signatures, from steakhouses to Pizza Express.

McDonald's has so many a list of them reads like a petition. Its most famous dishes are decades old. The Filet-O-Fish arrived in 1962; the Big Mac is a soixante-huitard; the Quarter Pounder appeared in 1973, the McNugget (such a pretty word) in 1979. These signatures – I think it's fair to call them that – are embedded in customers' minds and perhaps were part of their childhood. Repeat custom is the basis of McDonald's business model, as it is for any restaurant.

Restaurants use signature dishes to entice as well as keep customers. Many of the high-profile openings around London in the last year have had a signature: the cod cheek popcorn of Mishkin's, the lobster brioche roll from Burger & Lobster, The Delaunay's tarte flambée. "Have you had the such-and-such at such-a-place," restaurant fans like to ask each other in knowledgeable tones. These dishes done well create a buzz around the restaurant; it would be a brave or foolish chef who took no time over them.

"We don't like to talk of signature dishes," says Charles Pullan, manager of the great west London refectory the River Café. "But two things will never come off the menu." To anyone who has eaten there or cooked from the Café's books, what these are will be obvious: the squid with chilli, and the "chocolate nemesis".

Both are fantastic dishes that, in their way, evoke the spirit of the restaurant: sound ingredients, simply cooked, are better than fussy elaborations. The nemesis has four ingredients: the squid with chilli is just that.

Raymond Blanc was once famous for courgette flowers stuffed with crab mousse, and squab pigeon baked in salt pastry crust. These dishes, along with chocolate fondant before it became a 90s cliché, attracted people like Egon Ronay to Le Manoir and kept other customers returning. "A signature represents the value and style of a restaurant," says Blanc, "its texture, its classic values. It lasts through time and doesn't follow any fashion."

Certain dishes eventually become so successful that they typify the chef or restaurant. Waldorf salad, Heston's bacon and egg ice cream or snail porridge at the Fat Duck (or meat fruit at Dinner, come to that), Nobu's black cod with miso, canard à la presse at the Tour d'Argent, carpaccio from Harry's Bar: each is part of the lore and glamour of those restaurants, the basis for column inches, the purpose of most first visits. When Michel Roux Jr took over Le Gavroche in 1991 he sought to make its menu lighter and less rigidly French. He thus removed the famous soufflé suissesse from the menu. But customers were so furious he had to put it back.

Do you seek out the dishes you know have caused a stir when you go out for dinner or do you prefer to take your chances?

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012

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